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Chinese mobsters pass along lessons in big business

June 08, 2007|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

The rap on gangster films is usually the machismo and violence, but at their grim and enlightening best ("The Godfather," "GoodFellas") they are some of the only movies that delve into the treacherous machinery of the business world. (Hey, which would you rather watch, a rub-out or a conference call?)

Prolific Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To's savvy, grueling 2005 film "Election" and its 2006 sequel, "Triad Election" -- are not un-brutal. But in more ways than most of their ilk -- including some of To's own hopped-up entertainments -- they strip away the usual veneer of sadistic cool to get at the human cost of advancement in an irredeemable world.

Both films concern the struggle for leadership in the Wo Sing Society, a Hong Kong triad with a century-old anti-dynasty custom of having its senior members -- called "Uncles" -- democratically elect who will chair their group for a two-year period. Like a corporate board meeting or a backroom powwow of political party bigwigs, we see a group of elders debate whether much-respected aspirant Lok (Simon Yam) -- a single dad who dresses yuppily and speaks softly -- or hot-headed, strong earner Big D (Tony Leung Ka-fai) should get the title. Lok handily wins, but this doesn't set well with the incautious Big D, who handles defeat by kidnapping two uncles he'd bribed and rolling them in crates down a steep hill. (For fun, imagine who would have resorted to this in our own 2000 presidential election post-vote controversy.)

The crafty succession-challenge set-up by writers Yau Nai-hoi and Yip Tin-shing would lead most jaded mob movie aficionados to believe some stylish shootouts are in the offing, but "Election" aims with deliberate pacing for a cat-and-mouse tapestry of favors, alliances and chess moves as various Wo Sing figures try to avoid civil war (while, of course, bettering their standing within the group). The filmmaker even colors in the seriousness of the stakes with a touch of the absurd in the race to capture the society's ancient leadership symbol: a dragon's head baton squirreled away in mainland China.

The crazy, thrilling relay scenes of henchmen squaring off to wrest a stick of wood from each other -- sometimes shifting factions midfight, after they get cellphone updates from their bosses -- are like violent farce and point up, as does the movie's sobering final power play, the fragile connection between rituals that soothe and realities that rule.

"Triad Election" picks up two years later with the Michael Corleone-ish story of reluctant Wo Sing member Jimmy (Louis Koo), a snappy dresser with a pretty wife and dreams of starting a family, who views running for chairman purely as a compromise for maintaining a burgeoning (and, one day, legitimate) business empire. But like any good sequel, this film takes what is familiar with the original's concept -- in this case, an internecine struggle for supremacy -- and deepens it, investing Jimmy's dilemma with a knife's-edge clarity regarding capitalism and criminality that suggests an even darker corroding of the soul. Also, while the squeamish can handle the gore-free "Election," To makes his metaphorical points here with a gathering dread and gruesome yet spot-on imagery that should firmly lay to rest any hint that these movies glorify a gangster's worldview.

Ultimately, "Election" and "Triad Election" -- which benefit from being seen back to back -- play like a mature reevaluation of To's long-standing talent for splashy, eye-popping violence. They deliver consequences with as equal a force as the precipitating attack. At the end of "Election," Lok notes that crooks need to learn to use their smarts if they're going to prosper. Not so surprisingly, it's the same for filmmakers, and these two bloody good genre exercises prove it.

Johnnie To double feature: In Cantonese with English subtitles. MPAA rating: Unrated. "Election," running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. "Triad Election," running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Exclusively at Landmark's NuWilshire, 1314 Wilshire Blvd. (at Euclid Street), Santa Monica, (310) 281-8223.

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